Claude Goldenberg is a professor of teacher education at Cal State Long Beach

One of the most important concepts to emerge from reading research over the last 10 years is "phonemic awareness." Many parents and educators have heard about it, but few have a good understanding of what it is and why it matters.

It matters because children who have phonemic awareness are more likely to become good readers.

Phonemic awareness means understanding that speech is made up of individual sounds--phonemes--arranged in a particular sequence. When we pronounce and fluidly blend together the phonemes making up a word, we say a meaningful word. For example, when articulated smoothly and in the proper sequence, the phonemes /k/ - /a/ - /t/ form the word "cat." Going from individual phonemes to an intelligible word is called phonemic blending.

But readers can go in the opposite direction: Begin with "cat," then break into its individual phonemes /k/ - /a/ - /t/. Now you have gone from a meaningful word to individual phonemes, which themselves have no intrinsic meaning.

Notice two important points about phonemic awareness.

First, it does not involve print. Phonemic awareness is not phonics. Phonics refers to the sounds that letters represent and how these sounds and letters combine to form words. Phonemic awareness is strictly oral: knowing how to manipulate the sounds in spoken words.

Second, phonemic awareness requires focusing on the sounds of speech, not the meaning. This is surprisingly difficult, because people tend to focus on meaning. Developing phonemic awareness requires attention to meaningless sounds making up spoken words. We are naturally drawn to the meaning of the word "cat" and not to the sounds that make it up. Ask a young child what sounds she hears in "cat," and she might look at you puzzled. Or she might say "meow."

Children who have developed phonemic awareness have an easier time learning to read, write and spell than children who have not. Reading requires, among other things, mastering the "alphabetic principle"-- the idea that particular letters stand for particular sounds. Without adequate sensitivity to the sounds making up words, the connection between sounds and letters is usually difficult to make.

Teaching phonemic awareness can help accelerate reading development. This is particularly important for children at risk of reading difficulties. Learning rhymes and playing rhyming games are excellent ways to promote phonemic awareness. Adults can play other oral games with children that require the manipulation of sounds within words. For example, phonemes can be deleted. (Remove the /s/ from "sand" and you get "and.") They can be counted. (How many sounds do you hear in "can"?) And they can be matched. (Which two words start with the same sound: boy, bed, can?)

Don't be surprised if a young child doesn't get it. These concepts might seem obvious to literate adults, but they are far from obvious to those not yet literate.

Since phonemic awareness seems to help children learn to read, some educators have assumed that large amounts of such training must precede reading instruction. This is untrue. In fact, some children might need little or no explicit phonemic training. But in addition, phonemic awareness and learning to read and write are mutually supportive, each contributing to the other and to literacy development overall.

Phonemic awareness is no cure-all for our reading ailments. But it does play a role that parents and teachers should understand.


* Tuesday in Wilmington: An "Imagine the Future" drawing/writing contest for children ages 4 to 11 at 3:30 p.m. at the Wilmington Public Library, 1300 N. Avalon Blvd. (310) 834-1082.

* Wednesday in Alhambra: Professional storyteller Tobie Columbus presents story theater at 7 p.m. at the Alhambra Public Library, 410 W. Main St. (626) 570-3215.

* Saturday in Tarzana: "Let's Go to the Castle," story time at 11 a.m. at Pages Books for Children and Young Adults, 18399 Ventura Blvd. (818) 342-6657.

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